My date with death

I got the email on a Wednesday. There were open spots for a Friday morning tour of the medical examiner’s office — a tour that would include viewing an autopsy. I don’t know what compelled me to raise my hand.

Most of the people attending were attorneys who represent defendants in murder trials. They have a good reason to understand autopsies. I was going along mostly as a gawker. Maybe it is my training as a news reporter that makes me feel that, whenever I find a window into a world that is usually blocked off, I should look through it.

That’s how I found myself sitting around a conference table with about 30 other people, staring at a giant screen filled with the image of a naked dead man.

He looked maybe 50, in good shape, trim and muscular. Even in death, he exuded an air of strength and vigor. He had died suddenly the day before, and they were trying to figure out the cause. I had the strange sense that, maybe if they figured it out, this could still be reversed. He did not look like a man ready to die.

When I discovered that we would see the autopsy via a live video feed, I was disappointed. I thought it would sanitize the experience somehow.

Instead, the camera’s placement allowed us to look directly down into the body cavity as the autopsy technician, with stunning speed, sliced open his chest and abdomen, cut and folded back his skin, sawed out his sternum, and exposed his soft, blood-slick internal organs. I had a birds-eye view — one I never would have had from the observation window — as they roughly cut out his organs one by one, while a soupy puddle of red and yellow liquid collected inside his body. And then I watched as they sliced his scalp, folded it down over his face, and removed his brain.

The human body may be a miraculous and elegantly-designed machine, but it is also the most vile and revolting thing I have ever seen.

I walked out of the building reeling, my head pounding, my brain full of images I wished I could unsee. When I got home, I did a Google image search for “cute kittens,” thinking it might help erase the horror. I still couldn’t stomach my lunch.

That night, as I slid into bed, I thought of that nameless man. Just two nights before, he had probably crawled into his own bed, not knowing that it was his last night on earth. Not knowing that, on that very day, I had made a date with his dead body. Certainly, as he lay on his mattress, he never imagined that, less than 48 hours later, he would be lying on a cold metal table while a stranger cut his heart out of his chest. Any illusions I had of control in this life evaporated instantly.

A few years ago, I visited a slaughterhouse. I felt then, and still do, that there was something important about facing up to the way my food is made. I watched those animals go unwillingly to their deaths, and it helped me to make more informed choices. But I don’t know what the value was, for me, in seeing this man eviscerated.

Will I eventually realize that there was some good reason why my life and his death intersected? Or was it just my unseemly curiosity that brought us together? I’m not sure, but please send more kitten photos.

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